Is this Tian Tian? It’s a female I photographed in 2010 at Bifengxia. Copyright Henry Nicholls

The pandas are coming!” announced Edinburgh Zoo’s press office on Monday morning. The reason, I discovered, was not to proclaim the transfer of seminal fluid from male to female panda (cause for celebration as that might be), but because the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) finally has a date set for the long-awaited arrival of a pair of giant pandas. When the FedEx Panda Express touches down in Edinburgh on Sunday, Tian-Tian and Yang-Guang will be the first giant pandas to set foot in Britain for 17 years.

I’ve thought a lot – probably too much – about giant pandas. In 2010, I published The Way of the Panda, a popular science-cum-history book that lays out the intertwined fortunes of giant pandas and modern China as they made their respective ways towards zoological and economic world domination. In it, I reached the conclusion that captive pandas are deceptive beasts, having more in common with the cuddly toys, the abstracted WWF logo or dressed-up darlings of many-a-successful advertising campaign than with the real, wild pandas that eke out a living in the dwindling bamboo forests of China.

The Edinburgh pandas illustrate this perfectly. When China’s vice premier Li Keqiang and Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg signed off on the panda deal in January, the pandas were the subject of widespread up-beat news coverage. But within weeks, any pretentions that these were zoological entities had vaporized as the media began to dig deeper. From February onwards, the pandas had become stars in a human drama, used to draw attention to a full-on scandal that brought the zoo’s management infrastructure to the brink of total collapse.

The precise details of what took place remain unclear but for those who missed it I wasted several hours putting together a detailed timeline of events as covered by the Scottish press. In short, an anonymous dossier of serious but as yet undisclosed allegations crippled the organization, triggering suspensions and dismissals from the board. As this scandal wrought its destructive course on individuals, families and the venerable institution that is Edinburgh Zoo, the repeated appearance of pandas in photographs gave the overall impression that their acquisition had triggered the management crisis. In the absence of any direct evidence, however, this seems to have been little more than speculation based on the assumption that where there are pandas, there are men in suits filling their seedy little pockets with grubby banknotes.

Sure, captive pandas have obvious commercial promise. There is, for instance, an established graph with visitor numbers on the y-axis and time since arrival of pandas on the x-axis. There is also a version of this that shows what happens to gate receipts if the pandas manage to procreate. The zoo shop can do a nice line in panda-related merchandise. There is always the hope of landing a private sponsor, though in the current climate this could be tricky.

But the income that captive pandas can generate for a zoo is unlikely to match the expense. It cost Edinburgh Zoo £250,000 to construct a state-of-the-art panda enclosure on the site of the former gorilla exhibit. The RZSS will be paying China around £640,000 every year for ten years for the privilege of having pandas. It will have to fork out a further £70,000 each year for food, importing most of the required bamboo from a plantation on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Then there are the salaries of keepers that will dedicate their working lives to the pandas.

If captive pandas are so costly, why does Edinburgh want them? There are many reasons I think, but few of them have very much to do with wild pandas. The more time that passes since writing my book, the more convinced I am that there is little, if any, overlap between the lives of captive and wild pandas. In theory, the annual fee that Edinburgh will pay to China must be used to those animals in the wild. In practice, it is spent on strengthening captive institutions in China. Should Tian-Tian and Yang-Guang procreate, there will be lots of excitement but without a means of reintroducing captive pandas into the wild – a feat that has yet to be achieved – any offspring will be destined to a life as a captive with only superficial resemblance to their real, wild counterparts.

No, the real value of captive pandas lies not in their identity as pandas but in the colossal symbolic importance we humans have invested in this remarkable species. Any zoo that can boast the face of global conservation amongst its inmates will only enhance its standing as a serious conservation concern. A pair of pandas acts like an incredibly efficient, self-sustaining PR engine, generating the kind of press coverage – most of it generous – that most press officers can only dream of. These animals open up wide and fertile new vistas for educating the public, not just about conservation of pandas, not just about conservation in China but about global conservation, full stop.

In spite of these benefits though, I feel duty bound to point out that captive pandas can be profoundly unpredictable too. Take the case of Wang-Wang and Funi, a pair of bears that have been on loan to Adelaide Zoo since 2009. It’s been estimated that during their first year in residence, they injected $57 million into the South Australian economy. At the zoo itself, however, the pandas have not had the same effect and the South Australian government and Westpac Bank have had to step in to save it from financial ruin.

Tian-Tian translates as “Sweetie” and Yang-Guang as “Sunshine”. Only time will tell whether the Edinburgh pandas live up to their names and bring sweetness and light to the fortunes of Edinburgh Zoo and the wider city or whether the undoubtedly risky panda adventure will have a dark and bitter ending.

An edited version of this article (with the jokes taken out) appears on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website.

A black and white Christmas
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